I am convinced that people could learn much from non-religious writings, even some, but not all, crime novels. Thus, my desire to increase my knowledge is why I still read more than a hundred fictional non-religious books annually, in addition to my studies of biblical commentaries. I will give an example of one such book. It is a short story of only 57 pages in its original Yiddish edition and 45 pages in its English translation. Both versions are in the bilingual English-Yiddish edition published by Toby Press in 2020, part of the prestigious publications of Israel’s Koren Press.
The story is by the Yiddish writer Chaim Grade (1910-1982), pronounced gra, as in open your mouth and say ah, and de at the end pronounced as in eh, the word said in surprise. Grade in German and Yiddish means “straight.” Grade’s early writings were poetry. “My Quarrel” was Grade’s first work as a novelist. He was successful, and other splendid, also thoughtful dramas followed.
The Noble winning novelist Elie Wiesel once said of Grade that he was “one of the great – if not the greatest – of living Yiddish novelists. The story is called in English “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner.” It is so good that other writers made it into a film and a play. It is about the different opinions of Judaism by two former classmates at an Orthodox Yeshiva. Grade and his fictional counterpart in the tale left the Yeshiva and became a secular Jew because they felt the lessons of the Yeshiva were wrong, even harmful. Rasseyner continued his life living the Yeshiva beliefs. The Grade stand-in argues that Jews must open their minds to the enlightenment. Hersh Rasseyner argues fervently that only observant Jews are faithful Jews.
The story is a classic because of its lasting merit. Its message is still relevant today despite being first printed in 1952, seventy years ago, because it addresses the current dispute between secular and observant Jews. It highlights the destruction of Judaism and the conflict caused in the past and today. Talmudic rabbis and scholars agree that the second temple in Jerusalem, for example, was destroyed in the year 70 because Jews could not live peacefully together. Had they got along, Rome would not have demolished the temple, destroyed the land of Israel, and caused most Jews to wander in the diaspora for two thousand years.
The two former Yeshiva students were friendly classmates when they attended the right-wing very observant rabbinical school but did not see each other for decades after the student with Grade’s rational view of Judaism left the school. He became a secular Jew while his former friend continued at the school, became hostile to secular Jews whom he considered Jewish traitors, and rose to be the head of several Yeshivas. The two met in 1937 before the Nazi conflict, 1939 when Germany began to murder Jews and the former classmates lost their entire families, and 1948 when Jews reestablished Israel. The novel has six chapters. Of these, 1948 takes six, over 85 percent of the text. Hersh Rasseyner was abrasive throughout.
Each criticizes the other in 1937 and 1939. For example, Grade scolds Hersh: “You laugh at people who work and do business [while you stay at home or the synagogue reading the Talmud] because you say they don’t trust in God [to provide your needs]. But you live on what those exhausted women labor to bring you [not God], and in return, you promise them – the world to come. Hersh Rasseyner, you have long since sold your share of the world to come to those poor women.”
Grade censures Hersh for his narrow, divisive, and alienating Orthodoxy and scolds him for dismissing fellow Jews and righteous non-Jews from his circle. What would the non-Jewish people who saved Jews during the holocaust think if they heard Hersh’s Orthodoxy excluded them?
Hersh insists that humans should not rely on their works and ideas. They should choose between good and evil as Jewish Law chooses for them. He mocks Grade for failing to realize that humans are incapable of understanding life and insists that they need to rely on rabbinical teachings. Grade responds that he doesn’t consider it a particular virtue not to have doubts. The “heroism of secular thinkers lies in [striving to improve themselves and society and] their ability to risk and live in doubt.”
Ultimately, after the holocaust and the bickering, Chaim Grade ends his tale with a plea to Hersh Rasseyner and all who think like him to stop excluding people who do not believe as they do.
The message of Judaism is respect for others. Love your neighbor as yourself. What is harmful to you, do not do to others. Neither Adam nor Eve were Orthodox Jews, but God created them. All humans, with no exception, are created in the image of God. Abraham wore no yarmulke. King Solomon acquired materials from pagan idol-worshiping kings to build the temple. Non-priests entered the temples’ Holy of Holies to make repairs so that it would not fall apart. Secular Jews led the reestablishment of Israel before and in 1948.
We need to be together, or we will cease to exist.